FILE – An organizer displays a naloxone kit that people can pick up for free as International Overdose Awareness Day training seminar takes place at Centennial Square in Victoria, B.C., on Saturday August 31, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

FILE – An organizer displays a naloxone kit that people can pick up for free as International Overdose Awareness Day training seminar takes place at Centennial Square in Victoria, B.C., on Saturday August 31, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Fatal overdoses continue to spike in B.C. as July sees 175 illicit drug deaths

B.C. hits grim milestone of more than 900 deaths in first seven months of 2020

The province recorded 175 fatal overdoses in July, pushing the total deaths from illicit drugs in B.C. to above 900 this year.

July marked the third month in a row where overdose deaths topped 170 and was down just two from a record-breaking month in May, when 177 people died. The province reached a grim milestone of 909 deaths so far in 2020 due to illicit drug overdoses, compared to 618 in the first seven months of 2019.

“The toxicity of drug supply is extreme,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said. Henry and Premier John Horgan have pushed to decriminalize simple possession of prohibited drugs.

READ MORE: B.C. premier asks Trudeau to decriminalize illicit drug possession as deaths climb

According to the B.C. Coroners Service, 5.6 British Columbians died each day due to illicit drug overdoses. In July 2019, 74 people died.

Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe called the deaths “profound and tragic.” Drug overdoses have killed nearly 6,000 people in B.C. The number of people dying of overdoses in the province continues to surpass deaths due to homicides, motor vehicle incidents, suicides and COVID-19 combined, she added.

“We continue to see an increase in death due to extreme fentanyl concentration,” Lapointe said. Fentanyl has been present in 78 per cent of deaths so far in 2020.

“If you are using illicit substances… it is critical you use only in the presence of someone willing and able to inject naloxone.”

Lapointe said that although the overdose crisis can often seem to be a problem of the Downtown Eastside, “every demographic in this province” has been hit by the crisis.

Broken down by health authority, 285 people died in Fraser Health, 254 people in Vancouver Coastal Health, 165 in Island Health, 143 in Interior Health and 62 in Northern Health. However, Northern Health has the highest rate of death at 35.4, with Vancouver Coastal Health at 35.1, Island Health at 33.2, Interior Health at 30.6 and Fraser Health at 25.5.

Henry’s voice broke as she offered condolences to the families and friends of victims of the overdose crisis.

“I implore anybody who is using drugs right now, do not do it alone. You need to have your lifeguard there,” she said.

Henry acknowledged that the measures taken in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic have made drug toxicity worse in B.C. Some supervised consumption sites have shortened their hours due to physical distancing concerns, and overall isolation has increased due to the pandemic.

“The pandemic has uncovered some of the inequities that we have in our society,” she said.

Guy Felicella, peer clinical advisor with the Overdose Emergency Response Centre and BC Centre on Substance Use, had harsh words for the provincial and federal governments.

“W have to save people’s lives and we’re failing miserably in doing that,” Felicella said. “This crisis has been decades in the making.”

Felicella, who has struggled with substance use in the past, said the pandemic response has shown where government priorities lie.

“More people die of a drug overdose than die of COVID,” he said. The virus has killed 203 people so far in B.C, compared to the 909 overdose deaths.

READ MORE: Parallel crises: How COVID-19 has exacerbated the drug overdose emergency

But with the increasing drug toxicity of the supply in B.C., health official said that naloxone is not enough. Paramedics responded to about 2,700 overdose calls in July, more than any other month since the crisis began in 2016.

Jon Deakin, paramedic practice leader with BC Emergency Health Services, said that while naloxone is the first step, bystanders should call 911 right away.

Deakin said 95 per cent of people survive an overdose when treated quickly by a paramedic.

Lapointe said the “shame and stigma” of illicit drug use causes many people to use alone and not head to the province’s supervised consumption sites. No deaths have been reported at those sites.

“There are so many repercussions currently if people become aware that you are experiencing problematic substance use,” she said, adding that the sites should be no more controversial than going to a walk-in doctors clinic.

“Obviously, punishment is not something that is helpful. Shaming people is not something that is helpful.”

The majority of drug overdose deaths happen when people use alone; in July, 85 per cent of fatal incidents took place inside. Of those, 56 per cent were in private residences and 29 per cent were in social and supportive housing, SROs (single room occupancy), shelters, hotels and other indoor locations. The 14 per cent that occured outside happened in vehicles, on streets and in parks.

As has been the case throughout the overdose crisis, the majority of overdose deaths are men under the age of 50. In 2020 so far, 79 per cent of deaths have been men and 68 per cent have been men between the ages of 19 and 49.

READ MORE: Nearly 6 people died from overdoses each day in June as B.C. sees continued spike


@katslepian

katya.slepian@bpdigital.ca

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

B.C. overdosesopioidsoverdose crisis

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Smithers District Chamber of Commerce coveted Alpine Man Statue for winners of the 2020 Community and Business Awards Nov 25. (contributed photo)
Smithers Feed Store named Business of the Year

Chamber of Commerce Community and Business Awards handed out in virtual ceremony via Zoom

The Terrace River Kings lost 9-3 to the Quesnel Kangaroos on Mar. 2, 2019 in the final CIHL playoffs. (Lindsay Chung Photo)
Central Interior Hockey League cancels 2020/21 season

League open to playing exhibition games if possible

Questions around rail safety, firefighter safety, cleanup near the rail yards and tracks, whistle cessation, etc were raised during the RDBN meeting with CN. (File photo)
Regional district frustrated with CN response to grievances

‘A lot of our concerns are still not being heard,’: Houston mayor Shane Brienen

Skiers and snowboarders enjoy the fresh, fluffy snow at Fernie Alpine Resort.
Ski hill scheduled to open Dec. 4

Hudson Bay Mountain Resort will open without its usual contingent of international workers

Idyllic winter scenes are part of the atmosphere of the holiday season, and are depicted in many seasonal movies. How much do you know about holiday movies? Put your knowledge to the test. (Pixabay.com)
QUIZ: Test your knowledge of holiday movies and television specials

The festive season is a time for relaxing and enjoying some seasonal favourites

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Kevin Bieksa during his days playing with the Vancouver Canucks. (Photo: commons.wikimedia.org)
Bieksa to guest on free Canucks Alumni ‘Hot Stove’ on Zoom app

Former NHL player has become a game analyst on Sportsnet

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

114 Canadians were appointed Nov. 27 to the Order of Canada. (Governor General of Canada photo)
Indigenous actor, author, elder, leaders appointed to Order of Canada

Outstanding achievement, community dedication and service recognized

More than 60 cm of snow has fallen at Ulkatcho First Nation near Anahim Lake in the Chilcotin since a snowfall warning went into effect Thursday, Nov. 26. (Graham West photo)
VIDEO: More than 60 cm of snowfall in Chilcotin since Thursday, Nov. 26

Graham West of Ulkatcho First Nation captures the scene on video

Screenshot of Pastor James Butler giving a sermon at Free Grace Baptist Church in Chilliwack on Nov. 22, 2020. The church has decided to continue in-person services despite a public health order banning worship services that was issued on Nov. 19, 2020. (YouTube)
2 Lower Mainland churches continue in-person services despite public health orders

Pastors say faith groups are unfairly targeted and that charter rights protect their decisions

A big job: Former forests minister Doug Donaldson stands before a 500-year-old Douglas fir in Saanich to announce preservation of some of B.C.’s oldest trees, July 2019. (B.C. government)
B.C. returning to ‘stand-alone’ forests, rural development ministry

Horgan says Gordon Campbell’s super-ministry doesn’t work

Peter Wilson, left, and Micah Rankin, right, formed the Special Prosecutor team that was tasked with reviewing and litigating charges stemming from the Bountiful investigation. Trevor Crawley photo.
End of Bountiful prosecution wraps up decades of legal battles

Constitutional questions had to be settled before a polygamy prosecution could move forward

Most Read